1950’s American Cadillacs, impressive Colonial-era boulevards, Hemingway, salsa, Che Guevara – Havana‘s jumbled historic and cultural influences has created one of the world’s most iconic, yet intriguing capitals. There’s no need for a history lesson here, everyone has a rough idea of the political tension between Cuba and the USA following the Cuban Revolution that has spanned decades. The recent rapprochement between the two nations is a promising step for the countries’ relations as well as Cuban tourism. So before the “forbidden isle” starts to busy up, now is the time to see Cuba’s capital before the hoards pour in.
That being said, Havana isn’t without its tourist traps. Amongst the shops touting Che Guevara tea-towels – a kitchen staple – and bars booming with tourist-enticing salsa, it is possible to see the real Havana, without missing out on what makes it such a famous place. Take a look at our guide on what not to miss!
Step back in time
What better way to understand modern Cuba, than to learn a bit more about its past. The city has a diverse range of museums where you can learn about the different chapters of Cuban history – the things that make it such an interesting place to visit today. The Museo de la Revolución, located in what was the Presidential Palace, offers a look into Cuba’s views of the revolution and houses a tremendous collection of artefacts.
One of the most surprising attractions in Havana is the Museo Napoleónico, home to one of the best collections of Napoleonic artefacts outside of France. The collection was amassed by Cuban sugar baron Julio Lobo, whose money-is-no-object attitude to building his collection has left the incredible Vedado mansion in which the collection is contained, with over 7,000 objects. So if you need a break from the Cuban Revolution, you can easily immerse yourself in the French one!
Smoke a cigar
If you are ever going to try a cigar, it should probably be in Havana. A good start would be the Habanos Festival, held in February over the space of a week. Activities range from factory tours to even classes on how to roll the perfect cigar. One of the highlights of this festival has to be the contest for the longest unbroken ash, where smoking aficionados gather to see who can go the longest without dropping any ash from their cigar.
Sample some local rum
What says “I’m on holiday!” more than sipping a Daiquiri or Cuba Libre in the Havana sunshine? Although some may passionately believe otherwise, Havana Club is the rum to make these delicious cocktails with. You can learn more about the city’s famous export at the Museum of Rum, where you’ll learn all about the origins of the drink. And of course, like any good booze tour, you’ll get to have a tipple at the end.
Walk in the footsteps of Hemingway
American literature enthusiasts will be able to soak in the atmosphere of a city that captured the heart of one the USA’s most famous authors – Ernest Hemingway. His most famous book, The Old Man and the Sea was penned here, as well as parts of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Most Hemingway fans head to his old haunts, the bars La Bodeguita del Medio and La Floradita. Here, you will have to be willing to barge through hoards of snap happy tourists to get a drink and a look at his statue.
Ernest Hemingway’s former home Finca Vigia is also worth a trip. Housed in his former villa, you’ll be able to see a number of Hemingway’s possessions, as well as a library containing the author’s original collection of books. Sadly, you can no longer enter (gee, thanks thieving tourists) but you can still get a good glimpse in the windows.
Immerse yourself in art
With Havana’s rocky history and Hispanic flare, it’s no surprise really that it has produced some incredible art. Visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and immerse yourself in the collections located across its two sites, separated into international and Cuban arts and spanning all the way back to 500BC.
Heading back into the 21st century, Fábrica de Arte Cubano wouldn’t look out of place in the likes of London’s Shoreditch or New York’s Williamsburg, yet it has a distinctly Cuban touch. This is Havana’s newest art project; a venue that combines art expos, live music, film, photography and fashion and is a stomping ground for the country’s biggest artists as well as newcomers to the scene. Alternatively, head over to Fusterlandia, a neighbourhood in Havana’s north-west that has been turned into a wonderland of art, murals and ceramics.
Walk down El Malécon
Havana’s seafront promenade is a local meeting point for many of the capital’s locals. Go at sunset to see the jumble of pastel coloured building being bathed in the sun’s orange glow with the sound of chatter and music mingling in the background. This is the best place to just soak in Havana’s atmosphere and perhaps do a spot of people-watching.